"Are those bullet holes?"
An unrepentant smirk and she doesn't know whether to demand the story or never, never ask for it.
"Hold still, sir." Jarvis sounds positively annoyed, jolting the ice from her belly.
"Jarvis, do you need a hand?" There. Her voice sounds calm, perfectly calm.
"If you could brace his right side?"
"I should have known you two would join forces against me someday," Tony mutters, sucking in hard breaths as her fingers skim the rough patches where bullets have marred the armor, trying to find purchase enough to brace.
There, that's where the machines are struggling. One side is gleaming, a smooth Ken-doll chest curve. The other… "Tank," he grins, hissing as her fingers pry at the edges of the chrome crater over his ribs.
She ought to say something, but it's impossible to banter through this. Tank, he says. She ought to kill Rhodes, or really whoever Rhodes has failed to kill because ten to one it's some poor private who got taken in by the patented Tony Stark charm. Who, come to think of it, is probably halfway through a court-martial for firing a tank on base. She'll make a call, maybe, if Rhodes hasn't taken care of it. Rhodes, who, come to think of it, has been in Afghanistan for the past two weeks. No way, no possible way. She yanks on the plate, sudden jerk nearly knocking Tony – Mr. Stark, Pepper, get it right – right off his rocket boots.
"Easy, tiger." His eyes sparkle, even if his face is still tense. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I wager not, sir." Jarvis, wonderful, snide Jarvis, saves her the trouble of inventing a reply. "The exosurface has been badly damaged. It's a wonder it didn't collapse mid-flight."
"Flight?" Pepper shook her head, squinting critically at the metal in front of her. Stupid he might be, but he was also clearly injured. Rage later. First aid, now. "Butterfingers?" He – she can't stop thinking of him as a he; he has a male sort of personality – rolls over, metal neck bending quizzically. "I think we're going to have to cut this. I'll need a hand."
Bzzt, and he's got the shears. Tony gapes. "Since when do you take orders from her?"
Jarvis' smooth tones interrupt the buzzing. "Since November the seventeenth, at five seventeen a.m."
Tony's face is frozen. He might have had trouble remembering her birthday before, but not now, not when it was the day before… before… She forces herself to smile. "Someone had to keep the rust at bay."
He thaws, lightning quick, eyes lingering on the hand that's absently caressing Butterfingers' support boom. "You're making it too easy, Potts," he says, but there's no leer in his voice.
Her eyes drop and she glides to the side, out of the way of a spare robot seeking a better angle to brace a boot, one that will hold Tony's right side steady for Butterfingers and his bolt cutter. "Miss Potts," Jarvis asks with a hint of apology, "if you would brace the chest plate and cushion the worst of those bruises?" One of the service robots nudges her hand inside the gap behind the tanks' dent.
This close, she can see the muscles in his neck working as her hand ghosts over bruised ribs. "You know, Pepper, this might be the kinkiest thing I've ever done."
"I doubt that highly, Mr. Stark."
He quirks an eyebrow. "There was that Russian diplomat…"
She'd almost quit that day, rather than face down the furniture movers who leered as they broke down a bed with three pairs of handcuffs sloppily soldiered onto it. Not to mention the state he'd been in, hollering for her as soon as the door opened, cheerfully explaining that he'd wanted to play James Bond as she'd tried her best to both not look at him and cut him free.
"I was thinking of those girls from the circus." Tony huffs, a short, surprised laugh that ends in a pained gasp as his bruised belly bumps the hard metal of the suit. She smoothes her hand over it before she can stop herself.
"That was an adventure." A catch in his voice…? No, no, she isn't going to think about that. She's reading something into nothing, or even worse, she isn't.
"That was a good five years ago, Mr. Stark." She tugs, and Butterfingers reaches his clever wrenches inside the new space they have made between leather and metal, rattling two rivets out of place fast as blinking. "If I didn't know better, I'd say old age is slowing you down."
Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzzt. Butterfingers makes short work of the bolts down the sides of the boots. "Oh, I'm still plenty spry," Tony purrs. Pepper is suddenly, embarrassingly aware of her hand against his hot belly.
But it's familiar, the hot shame and the sarcasm that covers it. "Which is, of course, why you're currently at the mercy of four robots and a secretary."
"I thought we didn't use that word."
"Double standards?" He's working hard to keep his tone light, but oh, she can hear the effort in it as the casing over his arms is pried off none too gently. "Miss Potts, I'm disappointed in you."
Ting! A bolt flies off and the metal torso clatters to the ground. One boot zooms forward, the other stays in place and somehow she finds herself bent backwards, hands braced against Tony's chest. "Oops," he mutters, but there's no apology in his grin.
She bends forward with all her might, straightening him up as his boots hiss and decompress. She's holding his elbows to stabilize except he's brushing against her as he comes down and so close, too close with his feet firm on the floor. "Now how ever will I get out of the rest of this?"
His tone is teasing but there's an edge to it. Those snaps near his neck – it will hurt him to reach them, if the thick leather will even allow him to get his arms above his head.
A deep, shaky breath. Perfectly professional, Pepper. That's all. Perfectly professional – at least in her universe, where wrangling half-naked (and sometimes whole-naked) strangers was actually listed in her job description. Even thoughit's different, so different because he isn't a stranger. "Promise me that you're wearing something underneath this." God help her, but she's already undoing the snaps.
"And ruin the mystery?" But she can see the shoulder of a ragged wifebeater, and now the sides. And now the waistband of his jeans. Her finger gets stuck in a belt loop as she slides down to the next snap but he doesn't make a crack, doesn't say anything at all, and that's far more frightening.
He'd better be able to step out of the legs himself because she doesn't think she can take it, the comments he'd make if she had to kneel in front of him just now. Bad enough that she'd made the mistake of looking him in the eye, too soft now, so soft and it would be so easy to just lean into him...
Bzzzt. Robot to the rescue, and she vows to learn this one's name even if it does look just like five others because it's saved her bacon and got Tony's boot off, both. She steps back, and it must be too quick (oh no, Pepper, just quick enough) because he's back to teasing again. "If you're not busy, Pepper, I could use some help with an ice pack. Bruises in all kinds of unusual places."
Pepper nods, her gaze locked over Tony's shoulder. The cold will bring the swelling down.
Pffffffffffffffffffffft! Tony is immersed in a white cloud of fire extinguisher. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
She can't help but grin, ignoring the curses that follow her up the stairs.